I recently received an e-mail from my old mate and musical partner, Tony, who told how his dad is suffering badly from the effects of Parkinson's Disease. If I'm not mistaken, Tone's dad must be about 80 years old or so and comes from the generation who saw Britain through the Second World War. Tone described how his dad, who now lives in residential accommation for older people, struggles every day to smoke a cigarette (having had to give up his beloved pipe) and shuffles painfully down the corridor to reach the garden where he can enjoy his puff of tobacco. What struck me was the utter determination and indomitable spirit of Tone's old dad. Happily, my own dad, who comes from the same generation, enjoys greater independence at the moment than Tony's dad, although he has had a lot health difficulties himself of late. This led me to think about people like Tony's dad and my dad and how much they have lived through, what they have taught us and how different our 'Baby-Boomer' generation is from theirs.
My father was born in 1928, around the time of the Great Depression, and was brought up in a large family in inner-city Bristol. My Grandparents, if not poverty stricken, were certainly poor; although my Grandfather, who had served in the Royal Navy, was usually fortunate enough to be in employment, having taken up the engineering trade. My dad was too young to join the forces during the war and spent the war years either dodging bombs and shapnel in Bristol (missing out on most of his schooling in the process) or as an evacuee in Devon and South Wales. I know that Tone's dad, being a few years older, earned the Burma Star for his war service in the Far East.
Having tried, unsuccessfully, to join the air force prior to the end of the war (he was too young) Dad signed up at a regular soldier with the Grenadier Guards around 1946. He didn't want to be a conscript, so he volunteered a for a long stint serving King and country.
Within a year my dad was with the British forces in Palestine, trying to keep the peace as part of the British mandate in the Middle East. He has told me a few stories of his time there but, like most old servicemen of that period, you never really get to learn much. I know he would have to go on patrol in what was then known as Trans-Jordan and I know friends of his never came back from this tour of duty. He was back for a while, though I'm not sure how long, and then he was shipped (literally) out to Malaya where he spent the best part of three years fighting Chinese Communist forces. Again, he told me about his pet monkey, how bloody hot it was, what sort of creepy-crawlies they had to contend with etc. but nothing really 'juicy'. I have been dumb enough to ask how it feels to know you have killed someone and he just doesn't answer. Why was I surprised? Anyway, once this lot was over with, things slowed down a bit and he was posted to Germany for a while. In between some of these stints he had the 'honour' of guarding the Queen at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and looked after her jewellery at the Tower of London. As a child I was always proud to see pictures of him in his ceremonial uniform of bear-skin and red tunic. I still am. He was in the band and learned to play the flute and he was 'fortunate' enough to have taken part in Trooping The Colour a few times. There are quite a few more stories from these times, some of them funny, some not so. Life in the British army was extremely hard in those days. My dad was never over-ambitious and only ever made it to corporal, so he and his colleagues was basically treated like 'scum' by the higher NCO's and officers. Consequently, he has very little time for such concepts as 'prison reform', having, he feels, volunteered for something far worse than prison! I'm sure Tony's dad would say much the same thing. My father also despised the officer class as they were, more often than not, a 'bunch of upper-class twits', drawn from our 'finest' public schools.
My dad served a total of 12 years in the Guards. He had intented to sign-on for much longer but had to leave due to ill-health. Inspite of all the hardship and danger, I'm certain he considers these times to be the best of his life. I always feel that he has never quite adjusted back to life on 'Civvie Street' in all these long years. The army made him a man. It certainly had a knock-on effect on how my brother and I were raised and not all for the good. My dad, like most of his generation, is a strong traditionalist and whilst he was still a relatively young fellow during the 1960's, he has never had any time at all for the 'drop-out' ethos. You had to work for a living and if you lost your job you got out there and found another one. He has done just about everything you can imagine to earn a crust: mechanic, bus driver, milkman, cleaner (like Tone's dad), delivery man etc. etc. etc.. Politically, he is, like many working class men of his time, a socialist with some decidedly right wing leanings. Which doesn't make him a 'fascis't but, rather, a product of his life experience. He believes in personal responsiblity and self sufficiency. He hates scroungers and free-loaders. Naturally, I have not always seen eye to eye with him politically but, as I grow older myself, I have begun to understand his stance on many issues. Also, I'd have to say that he has not always been a 'perfect' husband for my mother but I'm sure she would defend him to the hilt and say that she knows he loves her and has done things the way he knows best.
How do us 'Baby Boomers' compare to the likes of Tony's dad and my dad? I'm afraid I have to say we just 'don't'. I suppose we are largely more enlightened on certain social issues (for what good that has done us) and we may have what seems like a more enquiring out-look on the world beyond our own shores (but who would want to travel and meet people when you've been made to do just that only to kill them?). We have had the benefits of vast improvements in state education, free access to higher education, a national health service that was 'the envy of the world' (sic) and the freedom and cash to relish the cultural experiments of the 60's and 70's. What have we done with our inheritance? Well, it's our generation who are largely in control of things now and the country appears to be decending into chaos. I know that my parents look on in total confusion and dismay as the country they fought for and loved becomes an alien society to them. We have squandered the opportunities that the previous generation gave to us and I fear it may be too late to dig ourselves out of this hole. Where once there were moral certainties (even if these were far from perfect) now we are the hostages to a 'relativism' which allows dangerous criminals to walk the streets, gangs of youths to frighten old people half to death and benefit scroungers to declare that it is their 'right' to have their near-feral children subsidised by the tax payer. Thank God we have never been called upon to defend our nation from totalitarian evil: we just don't have the backbone. If Hitler came back today we'd be in jackboots before you could blink. Maybe the next generation, the one of our own children, can raise themselves up in almost Blakean prophetic style and save us all.
Thank the Lord for Tone's dad, my dad and lots of other dads of their generation.